Last month the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that, were it to become federal law, would subject Texas to increased federal oversight of state and local elections.
H.R. 4, or the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) passed the House on December 6 mostly along party lines. In the 228-187 vote only one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), joined Democrats in approving the proposal.
The VRAA seeks to restore sections of the Voting Rights Act ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2013, but also significantly expands circumstances under which the federal government may intervene in state and local election procedures.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby Co. Alabama v. Holder, Texas election laws and practices had been subject to “preclearance” under a 1975 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. The original 1965 VRA sought to eliminate local and state election laws that led to the disenfranchisement of minority groups. Since then, Congress has renewed the VRA five times, most recently in 2006.
In the Shelby ruling, the court found that preclearance provisions were predicated on events of the 1960s and 70s and did not reflect current conditions. In writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices.”
Democrats say the newly passed legislation is merely a restoration of the original preclearance requirements with updated data, but Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX-01) vehemently disagreed with that assessment.
“The original Voting Rights Act bill did a great deal of good for America; but unfortunately this new VRAA is an unconstitutional power grab thinly disguised as a voting rights bill,” Gohmert wrote in an email statement to The Texan.
According to Rep. Gohmert, “the Department of Justice can swoop in and subject an entire state to their punitive preclearance requirements if there are 15 ‘violations’ within a 25-year period in any of its political subdivisions.”
Additionally, the federal government could impose preclearance requirements if only 10 “violations” occurred during the previous 25 years if one violation was committed by the State itself.
VRAA also expands the definition of a “violation” and empowers the Attorney General to issue “strikes” against states and their respective political subdivisions.
Also, any “aggrieved citizen” can sue in federal district court to obtain immediate suspension of both new or existing election laws, and civic organizations can request the Attorney General to intervene, not only on behalf of racial minorities, but also for a new category of “language minorities.”
Rep. Gohmert also took issue with the redefinition of a violation.
“A ‘violation’ includes a small town or county being sued by well-financed politicos and the town or county settling to avoid being bankrupted. Just trying to clean up voter lists of deceased voters has caused such suits.”
VRAA also says election procedures that have disparate impact or create a “hardship” for some voters will be considered “violations.”
According to Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy organization, the specifics of VRAA would allow activists to use the courts and the Department of Justice to block election integrity laws and “interfere in unfavorable political precincts.”
Since Texas’ voter identification laws have been challenged on grounds of voter hardship, the state would be one of 13 immediately subject to federal intervention if VRAA becomes law.
Congressional Democrats in Texas have heralded House passage of VRAA.
Rep. Collin Allred (D-TX-32) took to Facebook to voice his support as a co-sponsor, saying the bill would stop “voter suppression tactics, many of which we’ve seen right here in Texas.”
In a press release, Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX-7) said, “Without federal protections against discrimination, states across the country have enacted new voter suppression tactics, including restrictive voter ID laws…”
In his remarks on the House floor, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) reminded members that the Supreme Court had upheld most of the original Voting Rights Act and that minority voters were still protected under current federal law.
Even after the Shelby ruling, Collins noted that U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal had ordered preclearance restrictions for the City of Pasadena, Texas, thus indicating remedies were very much available in the case of legitimate violations.
Collins warned that the specifics of the 2019 legislation would transform voting rights protections “into political weapons” and expand federal power.
“This bill would essentially federalize state and local election laws when there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that those states or localities engaged in any discriminatory behavior when it comes to voting,” said Collins.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee where both Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are members.
Rep. Gohmert does not believe the bill will pass the Senate as written.
“If this new bill were to become law, it would guarantee a federal takeover of local elections by the Department of Justice which still has not ridden itself of all unscrupulous, unethical Republican-haters,” he warned.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.